In his last outing on a permanent road course, Alex Tagliani scored a solid sixth-place finish at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington three weekends ago. So, Tagliani and the No 77 Bowers & Wilkins Honda/Dallara/Firestone team of Sam Schmidt Motorsports (SSM) were expecting good things in Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., especially in light of the fact Tagliani qualified fourth and ran a strong race a year ago at Infineon.

In the words of venerable college football analyst Lee Corso, Sunday’s IZOD IndyCar Series race for Tagliani turned out to be a case of “not so fast, my friend” as he found himself struggling with grip issues in navigating the 2.303-mile, 12-turn Infineon layout all afternoon and crossed the finish line a disappointing 20th.

After starting 12th, Tagliani held his position despite early understeer problems through the high-speed corners and a growing oversteer problem upon corner entry. He pitted under green for the first time on lap 24 of today’s 75-lap race and switched from the soft compound of Firestone “red” tires to the harder “black” compound in an effort to combat his handling issues.

But he could make up no ground during that second fuel-and-tire run as he climbed only as high as 18th before pitting for the second and final time and switching back to Firestone “reds” on lap 49. He resumed in 25th and, from there, could make up no more than five spots over the next 26 laps for a top-20 finish.

“It was pretty disappointing,” said Tagliani, whose weekend started on an inauspicious note when he ventured off-course just 34 minutes into Friday’s opening practice and never was able to return to the track that day while the SSM crew repaired the car. “We made some changes all the way through the race and I guess we missed it. There was no grip out there. I was sliding all over the place. It was one of those races where I leave here very unhappy. We’re going to a street course next week, so it’s tough to be able to take anything positive from this race to that one. Overall, it’s kind of a pretty bad weekend from where we were last year. We were searching the set-up all weekend. We made some changes before the race and it was probably the wrong direction to go. This is probably twice that this has happened to us this year, so we’ll just have to try and not make that mistake again.”

“Tag was complaining about not having grip all day long and was never comfortable from the get-go,” team owner Sam Schmidt said. “I think the 77 group just dug into a hole with the accident on Friday and never was able to dig out of it. That’s unfortunate. It just didn’t turn out to be a great weekend.”

SSM’s second team car this weekend, the No. 17 Snowball Express AFS/SSM Honda/Dallara/Firestone and driven by young British driver Martin Plowman, registered an encouraging top-12 result this afternoon. It was just the second IndyCar Series start for Plowman, who was fastest in Saturday’s final practice session prior to qualifying the No. 17 car 15th on the starting grid.

Plowman drove a strong race today, nonetheless, opting to start on Firestone “blacks” while a majority of the field started on “reds.” And he steadily moved forward before taking the checkered flag in 12th place.

“I think it was a good, solid day for Martin,” Schmidt said. “We tried a tire strategy where, quite frankly, if we wouldn’t have been held up on the first stint by a couple of guys, I think we would’ve had a top-10 today, which was the goal for today – qualify top-15, finish top-10. We didn’t get the yellows we counted on. Obviously, to go almost the whole race without a yellow is unprecedented here. So, Martin did a solid job all day, the times were right where they needed to be, and he made some passes on the track, which not many people did. The (No. 17) guys did a nice, clean job on the pit stops. It was just a good, solid effort and we go on to Baltimore in one piece.”

Will Power won from the pole today and led a 1-2-3 Team Penske sweep with Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe taking the second and third spots, respectively. It was Power’s fifth win of the season, the 14th IndyCar Series win of his career, and his second consecutive win at Sonoma.

Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon rounded out the top-five, while Sebastien Bourdais, rookie James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, E.J. Viso and Ryan Hunter-Reay comprised the remainder of the top-10.

There was one caution period for a total of three laps, and there were four lead changes among two drivers – Power with 71 and Briscoe with four. Two drivers failed to finish the 75-lap race.

With 13 of the 17 IndyCar Series races in the books, Franchitti leads the points championship with 475. Power is second with 449, while Dixon is third with 400.

With his 20th-place finish, Tagliani fell one spot to 16th in the standings with 238 points.

Next up for the IZOD IndyCar Series is the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix on the Streets of Baltimore. The race broadcast for the Sunday, Sept. 4 race starts at 2 p.m. EDT with TV coverage provided by Versus.

 

Date:                  Aug. 28, 2011

Event:                Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma (Round 13 of 17)

Series:                IZOD IndyCar Series

Location:           Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. (2.303-mile, 12-turn road course)

Start/Finish:       12th/20th (Running, completed 74 of 75 laps)

Winner:              Will Power of Team Penske